Written by: Ron Bricker
The recent television series Chuck features the tales of a self-identified "nerd" who experiences a Johnny Mnemonic-like download of government secrets and is forced to balance his every day life with saving the world- one awkward step at a time. The show is speckled with geek references, from video game to movie. Splinter Cell nestles in close to a Tim Burton Batman reference, while a Dark Crystal reference waits in the wings for its turn.
So given the number of comic books I own, the DVDs I watch, my incessant eagerness to dissect Kurosawa as much as Battlestar Galacitica, my inability to dress and general social awkwardness- why doesn't Chuck work for me?
The show itself is enjoyable enough. Chuck Bartowski goes through his daily life and is dragged along either unwittingly or willingly by his two minders on various missions of national importance. His mind now a potential geyser of Cyber-Tourettes, he sees national secrets that the U.S. government secreted away in a super computer- now conveniently downloaded directly into his brain by a rogue CIA agent and former roommate (who apparently had watched the same Parkour videos on youtube that Chuck certainly does…). After the computer is destroyed, Chuck's head is now the only repository of a horde of national secrets and whose reactions must be watched and actions guided for the sake of national security.
As a post 9/11 show, the implication of dueling- and oftentimes warring- departments is refreshing. Adam Baldwin chews scenery as a near-psychotic NSA agent, but sadly has no rainbow knit cap in sight. (Insert Token Maudlin Serenity Mewl Here). Yvonne Strzechowski is the token blonde ninja CIA agent who pretends to be Chuck's girlfriend, and very possibly could also be his * gasp * real love interest.
If it sounds paint by numbers, well it is. It's relatively formulaic, in that Chuck gets over his head with crazy spy/government stuff and gets bailed out by his minders. It's light and fluffy, but it isn't totally asinine.
So why can't I get into it? Granted, it's only been three episodes in. We've a variety of token geek references: Trainspotting, Batman, Splinter Cell, Doom, Jim Henson, etc. That should be enough right?
Here's the problem. Chuck is geek drag. And bad drag at that. It's geekface doing a softshoe that's almost offensive.
Let us set aside the fact that our protagonist seems about as geeky as the archetypal "Girl With Glasses" in teen flicks that suddenly becomes gorgeous when removing her eyewear and let us go further into the issue. In a recent episode of the NPR radio show This American Life, Ira Glass decreed the cheapening of the term "nerd". He pointed out that with the ascendance of the geek in popular culture, suddenly everyone is claiming nerd pride. People who were popular in school, whose head had never graced a toilet bowel nor known the distinct pleasure of fishing a urinal cake out of their nostril afterward, suddenly claim rights to geekdom. Enjoying Star Wars suddenly is cred enough. And all the painful social embarrassment that fermented and formatted the joy in seeking out a fantastic world or interest is lost.
The problem with Chuck is that the geekdom is painted by numbers. It almost seems as if it's pandering to what a focus group TELLS them is geeky enough to put in the show. The core tenant of geekdom is unadulterated LOVE for a subject to an almost unhealthy degree. Now granted, the term often used (explicitly) in the show is "nerd", and this is a nom de guerre that implies a certain sterility. Nerdom is passion for a useful skill whereas geekdom is passion for an (arguably) useless skill. Still, the problem with Chuck – a show that tries to proudly wear its Nerd Cred on its sleeve – is the sheer passionlessness of the nerdery. It almost feels like a writer is hitting a checklist during each episode before moving on to their light-hearted romp through national security issues.
Chuck is basically 24 with Zach Braff instead of Keiffer Sutherland.
People can tell when you're faking it. Scrubs is a show that is off the wall and packed with television and random 80s asides, but it works because the love of the writers is palpable. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's movies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz work because the two have a deep, abiding love and scary knowledge of the genre that they satirize. (And their relatively unknown in the States British sitcom Spaced is TRUE Geek Love in fourteen perfect episodes).
I get the impression that Chuck is a show written by people satirizing geeks under the guise of self-deprecation for the purpose of drawing geeks in. The success of genre and speculative fiction in the media has made people realize that cash can be found in such pandering.
What's the most frustrating is that it isn't a BAD show. I am nitpicking here. It's light, fluffy fun that isn't asinine and, if not smart, then at least not stupid. I just wish it were better. A good portion of the humor is quirky enough to separate it from other comedies, but I find myself more interested in the token Loser best friend who's inexplicably afraid of old computers and ends up weeping in a cage after being locked in with some than I do with our protagonist or his spy-shenanigans. I want to see more of the "Nerd Herd" character actors who actually look like real geeks as opposed to our star who basically is one haircut away from a frat party.
No, it isn't bad, but it isn't really good either. It's just forced and each episode more and more illustrates how sterile and mediocre is.
I may be nitpicking, but I wouldn't be much of a geek if I weren't passionate and just a little elitist about my media.